Jake Old: After a life change, putting insomnia to sleep

Feb. 01, 2014 @ 11:55 PM

Insomnia has historically been a hurdle for me – going back to high school, when I would find myself staring at the ceiling for many hours of the night, my mind racing.

When I was in college, the problem persisted. It manifested itself in constant waking during the night, rendering a good night's sleep more rare than the Holy Grail.

The stress of school — assignment deadlines, social pressure — was the obvious cause of my insomnia. It was the one common thread throughout these nine years of my life. This was the conclusion I came to at the time.

I was also a dedicated musician during this time. Sure, it had some stresses too, and it was certainly another common link, but it was a hobby, a passion. Stress from this part of my life shouldn't have been keeping me up at night. Music is a stress reliever for most people.

At some point in college, something strange happened. I harnessed the insomnia. I used it to create a bubble of silence, a time when I could be all alone with my thoughts. And my musical creativity seemed to thrive. Some of my best songwriting was done during this time.

I came to embrace insomnia. Every time I got stuck in a rut in my writing, I knew I could work myself out of it as soon as a sleepless night came along.

After I graduated, the stresses of school dissipated. I was playing more music than ever before, and I developed what is commonly referred to as a “moonlight tan,” the ghostly complexion of someone who has no regular contact with sunlight. I kept odd hours, as musicians are apt to do, and slept during the day, living life with the shadows and the creatures of the night.

My insomnia persisted. Perhaps it was the high expectations I imposed on my musical abilities. Perhaps my body simply had completely forgotten how to sleep normally, so that even when the stress that started the insomnia had gone, my body was still lost.

When I started at The Mountain Press at the end of October, the amount of space in my world occupied by music decreased substantially. I still play guitar and sing songs somewhat regularly, and I even write occasionally. But it's a drastic change from the way that I was entirely consumed by music for a decade before.

With this job comes obvious new stress. If I blamed my insomnia on school stress, then I almost certainly should be burning the midnight oil now that I have started a real job with real pressure, real deadlines and real expectations.

And yet something magical has started since I've been living in the land of the Smokies: I've been sleeping through the night regularly.

In fact, I've only had insomnia a handful of times, a far cry from the days of college, when I might find myself unable to get a satisfying night of sleep as many as five days a week.

Beyond that, I don't feel stifled creatively. I was always afraid that, if the day did in fact arrive when I would move past my bouts with insomnia, my creativity would fade away. The moments I spend with my guitar lately have almost all been bursting with inspiration.

I suppose there's a chance that I have higher expectations for myself as a musician than as a writer. Or maybe it was the pressure to be a good enough musician for the expectations of others, rather than myself. After all, nearly every person close to me wonders why I would give up music for writing. But no one wondered why I allowed writing to take a back seat to my passion for music during the months after graduation.

The more I think about it, the less I really care. I'm not going to question it. Maybe it was stress from certain aspects of my life. Maybe the sofa I'm sleeping on is just more comfortable than my old bed. Maybe there's something in the air here in East Tennessee.

Whatever it is, I'm enjoying the regular sleeping schedule I've found myself on. Maybe I just shouldn't jinx it by worrying about it too much.

Jake Old is a reporter for The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 214, or email jold@themountainpress.com.